Unboxing: experiential retail’s secret weapon

02 August 2021, 07:52 AM
  • Here's how to take your product packaging to the next level
Unboxing: experiential retail’s secret weapon

It’s easy to assume the hype around unboxing began with YouTube, where entire channels are devoted to the breathy disrobing of consumer goods. Phones, watches and fragrances seem the obvious ground zero for packaging engineered to take the consumer on an enjoyable journey of its contents, but not so. “The proto opening experience in packaging is rooted in luxury food,” says Peter Macqueen, course leader and senior lecturer on Sheffield Hallam’s BSc Packaging Professional Apprenticeship.

“Think Fortnum & Mason classic hampers, wax-sealed cheese, beautifully-corked and finished bottles… They’re sumptuous and classic, and pre-date what we consider to be contemporary packaging, but they haven’t gone away. This category has always been centred on provenance and artisanal processes, and we see other sectors try to harness that concept. In some way the iPhone unboxing experience is lifted from a Fortnum & Mason hamper.”

You’ll no doubt notice the extra care and attention that’s been lavished on a rare boxed single malt, a superior loose leaf tea or raw honeycomb. Layers of packaging build a sense of anticipation as outer boxes are opened to reveal tissue paper, wood shavings, pouches or foam niches where the final product nestles.

“Opening experience, or ‘unboxing’ is absolutely something that gets designed in and is often a highly-considered factor in the design process,” says Peter. “From a design perspective it’s rooted in what we call ‘purchase confirmation’, and the more expensive the product is the more important that is. So it’s not just about hoping an influencer is going to open the packaging on social media and get lots of hits on a video. It’s more authentic than that. When the customer has spent a lot of money you want to make sure you’re giving them the best possible experience. The irony is that over the last year we’ve all had the opposite as we’ve got crappy Amazon boxes with something small rattling around inside.”

If you’ve been in fine food for any period of time you will have witnessed regular rebrands as producers tweak their styling to capture the imagination and loyalty of a continually evolving set of public tastes. “Packaging is your brand ambassador,” agrees Peter. “You might think that people don’t see packaging when they walk in the shop, or they don’t perceive it. But actually when you pick a product up in a deli, 80% of your interaction is with the packaging until you get it back home and open it up. We deal with packaging all the time. The weird thing is that now, when you shop online you’re often shown the unboxed product – you see the coffee bean, you see the whole leg of ham… and then what arrives in the post is a pack. Normally you’d see the pack first and make that deduction for yourself. So there’s a disconnect there. If we’re not going to have so much physical shopping in future it’s going to be really important for packaging to reintroduce that experience.” 

The rise of restaurant meal kits through various hospitality shutdowns has really shifted the consumer’s experience of high-end ingredients. Carefully designed menu cards, step-by-step instructions and even QR codes for playlists to enjoy while eating have raised the stakes in out-of-the-box food and drink. “Subscription services or ‘mystery boxes’ bring all of the recent trends in packaging together,” says Peter, “giving a sense of having your experience ‘curated’ – whether it’s through tasting selections for chocolates, wines or even meal kits. Adding an intentional structure or ordered reveal process to unboxing transforms a pack from a simple logistic device and makes the packaging an inherent part of the consumer experience.”

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